Can This Connecticut City Regulate Anti-Choice Clinics Without Court Interference?

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling won't discourage Hartford officials from enforcing a new rule against deceptive pregnancy centers.

An anti-choice center in Hartford, Connecticut imitated the signs and language of a real clinic across the courtyard, trying to trick people seeking abortion care. Shutterstock

Officials in Hartford, Connecticut, rolled out an ordinance Wednesday to prevent deceptive advertising practices at faith-based pregnancy centers that use anti-choice propaganda to target those seeking abortion and contraception services.

They’re hopeful the ordinance will stand up to court scrutiny despite the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling supporting anti-choice clinics, commonly known as crisis pregnancy centers, in California.

“We are confident our ordinance can withstand legal challenge because it is more narrowly crafted than California’s law was,” Howard Rifkin, the city’s legal counsel, told Rewire.News. “We require only that these centers disclose whether they have medically licensed personnel providing or supervising services. We do not require additional disclosures about what services they may or may not offer.”

Effective October 1, the ordinance requires pregnancy centers to disclose to prospective clients if they do not have a licensed medical provider on site.

“Our ordinance is based on the simple principle that women should be told the truth when they’re making decisions about their bodies, their health, and their lives,” Mayor Luke Bronin said Wednesday at a press conference. “We have seen young women, often young women with few resources who don’t have access to regular medical care, deceived and ‘lured’ away from women’s health centers that offer the full range of reproductive healthcare. We should all agree that’s wrong, no matter how you feel about abortion. These common-sense rules say that if you don’t have a licensed medical provider on site, you should disclose that fact.”

Hartford considered the ordinance after a particularly aggressive anti-choice clinic tried to usher away patients coming in for appointments at clinic that offered real reproductive health care. To further confuse patients, the anti-choice center imitated the signs and language of the real clinic across the courtyard, as reported by Rewire.News.

The Hartford ordinance passed last December and was set to take effect July 1, but Rifkin said they delayed implementation to make sure the rules would stand up in court.

California’s Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency Act, or the FACT Act, required licensed clinics to inform patients and callers that free or low-cost abortions and contraceptives are available in the state, and provide telephone numbers of agencies that could connect them to such providers. Unlicensed centers were required to post disclaimers in their advertisements to clarify, in several languages, that their services do not include licensed medical help. Anti-choice clinics argued the law violated their First Amendment rights and religious beliefs.

Hartford’s ordinance is different, Rifkin said. It says if you are defined as a pregnancy service center, you have to disclose to patients and callers whether you have a medical professional on staff. Rifkin said he does not believe this impinges on any First Amendment rights and described it as “a fair and rational disclosure to women seeking reproductive health services.”

The clash between free speech and the right to abortion services led to the Supreme Court’s NIFLA v. Becerra ruling in June, a 5-4 decision that nullified the California law. Advocates worry the ruling could topple similar laws in Hawaii and Illinois.

Connecticut is also considering a statewide law based on Hartford’s ordinance. Mayor Bronin has testified in favor of House Bill 5416, “An Act Concerning Deceptive Advertising Practices of Limited Services Pregnancy Centers.” The bill faced a public hearing in March before the legislative session ended, and advocates are hopeful it will be taken up again in the Democratic-majority legislature. 

A reproductive rights roundtable organized by Connecticut State House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter (D-Hartford) received bipartisan support this summer, said Sarah Croucher, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut. “The hardest issue for us was getting people to aware of what [fake clinics] are because it’s hard for people to understand that these places really exist.”

After over 18 months of advocacy, there is more public awareness and political momentum statewide to regulate anti-choice clinics that deal in myths spread by abortion rights foes, she said.

“As fundamental reproductive rights are under threat at the national level, this is an important step at the local level that underscores Hartford’s commitment to reproductive freedom for all women. We hope the state will follow suit and protect women around Connecticut from these deceptive practices,” Croucher said in a statement.